Silica Snow

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Silica Snow
“Hello? Operator?” said the electron in Morse code, via flipping its positive one-half spin into a negative one-half spin and back repeatedly. “Have you discovered the unifying theory of everything in physical science? Have you discovered silica snow? Have you discovered the narcissism of desiring the author?”
It was from a hot Jupiter exoplanet, and beckoning to an entangled electron that resided inside the electron microscope of Stephanie Ladder, a young woman on the third year of a never-ending post-doc in a large and renowned research institute. Stephanie did not see the electron’s message. She was attending a colloquium.
“Any questions?” said Dr. Gould, and cast about the room desperately. Only one arm was raised. Dr. Gould sighed and waved his hand in a small, careless gesture.
“The study you describe looks very interesting,” said Stephanie, “But I wonder, why such narrow parameters in searching for ammonia and methane? It’s human-centrism to think that carbon-based life forms are the only life forms. There are plenty of planets out there with temperatures high enough that liquid and even gaseous silicon exists.”
“Thank you, Ms. Ladder,” said Dr. Gould. “I think we covered this already. Any other questions? Well, thank you all for coming. Be sure to have some coffee and pastries before you go, and remember, the last talk in our series is coming up on Friday.”
Stephanie Ladder took the coffee and pastries but did not dignify Gould with further comment. She slouched back to lab, hard-won pastry in hand.
Later that evening, Stephanie was browsing her popular science blog over a steaming cup of Ceylon tea when she noticed a spike in page views. Accessing the statistics, she could find no point of origin for the web traffic. Three new comments had been made by + ½, to three separate entries. One, upon her latest update on the launch of MAVEN, read—so sorry about the dust storms, all that fine red dust will pixelate horribly. Another, from over a year ago, spoke toward the rover Curiosity, and asked after a colloquial phrase involving a domestic animal.
The third comment was upon Step’s initial entry, nine years ago, when she was just starting work on her degree. The comment sparked her memory. It was an epigram from her (as then unwritten) dissertation, which explored hidden variables in a known system. The quote was: “‘If he be Mr. Hyde’ he had thought, ‘I shall be Mr. Seek.’”
Step took an overlarge sip of her too-hot tea and sputtered back into her favorite mug. The mug, themed after Alice in Wonderland, had a cat that would disappear around a grin when subjected to heat. Step secretly considered the Cheshire a previous incarnation of Schrödinger’s cat, and took great glee in making it disappear with hot tea. The sputtering was due to the dates upon the comments. The MAVEN entry comment read the year 2019, the Curiosity, 2004, and the quote, 1886. Step refreshed the page, and then shut her browser in a huff, attributing the error to lousy blogspot bugs.
It had grown dark, and a mix of snow and sleet fell thick beyond the windows. Feeling no compulsion to hurry home through such weather, Step opened up her data tables. They caught her eye as oddly repetitive. Her electron spin monitoring seemed particularly foreign. The vague listlessness of mood, her frustration with Dr. Gould and the weather, her lack of job prospects—all had combined to bring Step to a state of irascible determination. Methodically, ludicrously, she began to translate the spin states into binary. Halfway through, finding the absurdity of the task too much, she laughed and read back her results.
Hello Operator, she read, rubbing at her eyes. Have you discovered-
Here she stopped and took a deep drink of tea.
The blizzard kept Step inside all night, communing with the electron. The final colloquium speaker was taken ill, having been soaked and frozen to the bone. Stephanie was called instead to give a short lecture on the role of probability in her research of hidden variables.
“Where I had previously, from boredom and frustration with certain computational models,” she glanced at Dr. Gould, “recorded electron spin, I noticed a trend. The Stern-Gerlach experiment took some work to conduct in near vacuum to limit the number of electrons involved. I argue that there is a slight probability that I observe the same electron each time I record the spin. Furthermore, if translated to binary, these shifts in spin make remarkable communication systems. Entangled electrons can give us instantaneous communication—receiving signals becomes possible with a vacuum, a special magnetic field and a beam of silver atoms!”
There were titters and giggles and a great amount of grey heads shaken at Stephanie. Yet she continued.
“Beyond this, there is some probability of the electron existing in various locations at the same time. Beyond this, however, can an electron not exist in various times at the same place? Something of a time loop ensues, of course,” Stephanie grinned at the beaming undergraduates, even as more reputable researchers began to leave the room.
But Stephanie didn’t care. She had discovered time travel, of a sort. The electron had conveyed the quote to her, from nine years ago and again on that snowy night, had inspired and sparked her research into hidden variables. The same electron had occupied one place at two times, entangled with the electron that whispered about its hot Jupiter exoplanet, sequestered cozily in a snowflake of silica. 

About the Author: 
Nadia Vinogradova, 22, holds a B.A. in Chemistry and English and a deep fascination with quantum mechanical and literary theory, with the poet W. H. Auden and with various genre-bending science fiction.

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Quantum Theories

K is for ... Kaon

These are particles that carry a quantum property called strangeness. Some fundamental particles have the property known as charm!

Q is for ... Qubit

One quantum bit of information is known as a qubit (pronounced Q-bit). The ability of quantum particles to exist in many different states at once means a single quantum object can represent multiple qubits at once, opening up the possibility of extremely fast information processing.

H is for ... Hidden Variables

One school of thought says that the strangeness of quantum theory can be put down to a lack of information; if we could find the “hidden variables” the mysteries would all go away.

A is for ... Alice and Bob

In quantum experiments, these are the names traditionally given to the people transmitting and receiving information. In quantum cryptography, an eavesdropper called Eve tries to intercept the information.

J is for ... Josephson Junction

This is a narrow constriction in a ring of superconductor. Current can only move around the ring because of quantum laws; the apparatus provides a neat way to investigate the properties of quantum mechanics.

P is for ... Planck's Constant

This is one of the universal constants of nature, and relates the energy of a single quantum of radiation to its frequency. It is central to quantum theory and appears in many important formulae, including the Schrödinger Equation.

U is for ... Uncertainty Principle

One of the most famous ideas in science, this declares that it is impossible to know all the physical attributes of a quantum particle or system simultaneously.

I is for ... Information

Many researchers working in quantum theory believe that information is the most fundamental building block of reality.

T is for ... Tunnelling

This happens when quantum objects “borrow” energy in order to bypass an obstacle such as a gap in an electrical circuit. It is possible thanks to the uncertainty principle, and enables quantum particles to do things other particles can’t.

G is for ... Gravity

Our best theory of gravity no longer belongs to Isaac Newton. It’s Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. There’s just one problem: it is incompatible with quantum theory. The effort to tie the two together provides the greatest challenge to physics in the 21st century.

U is for ... Universe

To many researchers, the universe behaves like a gigantic quantum computer that is busy processing all the information it contains.

R is for ... Reality

Since the predictions of quantum theory have been right in every experiment ever done, many researchers think it is the best guide we have to the nature of reality. Unfortunately, that still leaves room for plenty of ideas about what reality really is!

R is for ... Radioactivity

The atoms of a radioactive substance break apart, emitting particles. It is impossible to predict when the next particle will be emitted as it happens at random. All we can do is give the probability that any particular atom will have decayed by a given time.

T is for ... Teleportation

Quantum tricks allow a particle to be transported from one location to another without passing through the intervening space – or that’s how it appears. The reality is that the process is more like faxing, where the information held by one particle is written onto a distant particle.

M is for ... Multiverse

Our most successful theories of cosmology suggest that our universe is one of many universes that bubble off from one another. It’s not clear whether it will ever be possible to detect these other universes.

S is for ... Schrödinger Equation

This is the central equation of quantum theory, and describes how any quantum system will behave, and how its observable qualities are likely to manifest in an experiment.

B is for ... Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC)

At extremely low temperatures, quantum rules mean that atoms can come together and behave as if they are one giant super-atom.

Y is for ... Young's Double Slit Experiment

In 1801, Thomas Young proved light was a wave, and overthrew Newton’s idea that light was a “corpuscle”.

P is for ... Probability

Quantum mechanics is a probabilistic theory: it does not give definite answers, but only the probability that an experiment will come up with a particular answer. This was the source of Einstein’s objection that God “does not play dice” with the universe.

Z is for ... Zero-point energy

Even at absolute zero, the lowest temperature possible, nothing has zero energy. In these conditions, particles and fields are in their lowest energy state, with an energy proportional to Planck’s constant.

V is for ... Virtual particles

Quantum theory’s uncertainty principle says that since not even empty space can have zero energy, the universe is fizzing with particle-antiparticle pairs that pop in and out of existence. These “virtual” particles are the source of Hawking radiation.

W is for ... Wave-particle duality

It is possible to describe an atom, an electron, or a photon as either a wave or a particle. In reality, they are both: a wave and a particle.

O is for ... Objective reality

Niels Bohr, one of the founding fathers of quantum physics, said there is no such thing as objective reality. All we can talk about, he said, is the results of measurements we make.

I is for ... Interferometer

Some of the strangest characteristics of quantum theory can be demonstrated by firing a photon into an interferometer: the device’s output is a pattern that can only be explained by the photon passing simultaneously through two widely-separated slits.

M is for ... Many Worlds Theory

Some researchers think the best way to explain the strange characteristics of the quantum world is to allow that each quantum event creates a new universe.

S is for ... Schrödinger’s Cat

A hypothetical experiment in which a cat kept in a closed box can be alive and dead at the same time – as long as nobody lifts the lid to take a look.

S is for ... Superposition

Quantum objects can exist in two or more states at once: an electron in superposition, for example, can simultaneously move clockwise and anticlockwise around a ring-shaped conductor.

N is for ... Nonlocality

When two quantum particles are entangled, it can also be said they are “nonlocal”: their physical proximity does not affect the way their quantum states are linked.

X is for ... X-ray

In 1923 Arthur Compton shone X-rays onto a block of graphite and found that they bounced off with their energy reduced exactly as would be expected if they were composed of particles colliding with electrons in the graphite. This was the first indication of radiation’s particle-like nature.

E is for ... Entanglement

When two quantum objects interact, the information they contain becomes shared. This can result in a kind of link between them, where an action performed on one will affect the outcome of an action performed on the other. This “entanglement” applies even if the two particles are half a universe apart.

G is for ... Gluon

These elementary particles hold together the quarks that lie at the heart of matter.

Q is for ... Quantum biology

A new and growing field that explores whether many biological processes depend on uniquely quantum processes to work. Under particular scrutiny at the moment are photosynthesis, smell and the navigation of migratory birds.

H is for ... Hawking Radiation

In 1975, Stephen Hawking showed that the principles of quantum mechanics would mean that a black hole emits a slow stream of particles and would eventually evaporate.

C is for ... Computing

The rules of the quantum world mean that we can process information much faster than is possible using the computers we use now.

F is for ... Free Will

Ideas at the heart of quantum theory, to do with randomness and the character of the molecules that make up the physical matter of our brains, lead some researchers to suggest humans can’t have free will.

R is for ... Randomness

Unpredictability lies at the heart of quantum mechanics. It bothered Einstein, but it also bothers the Dalai Lama.

A is for ... Act of observation

Some people believe this changes everything in the quantum world, even bringing things into existence.

L is for ... Light

We used to believe light was a wave, then we discovered it had the properties of a particle that we call a photon. Now we know it, like all elementary quantum objects, is both a wave and a particle!

L is for ... Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

At CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, this machine is smashing apart particles in order to discover their constituent parts and the quantum laws that govern their behaviour.

C is for ... Cryptography

People have been hiding information in messages for millennia, but the quantum world provides a whole new way to do it.

D is for ... Dice

Albert Einstein decided quantum theory couldn’t be right because its reliance on probability means everything is a result of chance. “God doesn’t play dice with the world,” he said.

D is for ... Decoherence

Unless it is carefully isolated, a quantum system will “leak” information into its surroundings. This can destroy delicate states such as superposition and entanglement.

B is for ... Bell's Theorem

In 1964, John Bell came up with a way of testing whether quantum theory was a true reflection of reality. In 1982, the results came in – and the world has never been the same since!

W is for ... Wavefunction

The mathematics of quantum theory associates each quantum object with a wavefunction that appears in the Schrödinger equation and gives the probability of finding it in any given state.

A is for ... Atom

This is the basic building block of matter that creates the world of chemical elements – although it is made up of more fundamental particles.